Wodehousian or just William?

He has been described as the P.G. Wodehouse of Tamil fiction. Bombay-based columnist, V. Gangadhar, in fact, thought him more versatile that Wodehouse, his characters conveying more to readers than Jeeves and company. On the other hand, R.A. Padmanabhan who had worked with Devan (R. Mahadevan) at the Ananda Vikatan says his humorous ‘Rajamani' series started as Devan's original work but gradually derived much from Richmal Crompton's William series. The ‘Thuppariyum Sambu' series too owed much, it was said, to a foreign character, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, Padmanabhan adds. But one in the audience the other day at the first Devan Memorial Lecture organised by the Madras Book Club and Devan Endowments felt that Sambu reminded him of a much later creation, Inspector Clouseau. Not having read Devan, I'm not passing any judgements except to say that from all reports he was extremely popular in the 1940s and 1950s for his humorous writing as well as for his insightful travelogues.

Devan was a product of Government Arts College, Kumbakonam, when that institution was known as the ‘Oxford of the East'. His first efforts in writing were in English and appeared in My Magazine of India which started before its rival, the better-remembered The Merry Magazine from the S.S. Vasan stable; My Magazine also lasted longer. It was published by P.K. Vinayakam and edited by P.R. Rama Iyengar. Devan's humorous sketches in My Magazine caught the eye of R. Krishnamurthy, the Editor of Ananda Vikatan, who thereupon poached him after learning that he wrote equally felicitously in Tamil. Devan proved a success at Ananda Vikatan, his first contributions being talked about in the same breath as Krishnamurthy's, T. Ashokamitran recalled on the occasion of the endowment lecture.

Ashokamitran went on to remember that Devan was subsequently not given his head at Ananda Vikatan and, frustrated, had decided to join All India Radio, helped by a glowing recommendation from Krishnamurthy that encouraged the move. But when Krishnamurthy and Vasan had a difference of opinion on Krishnamurthy's political activism in the Quit India movement and the Ananda Vikatan's famed Editor left in 1940 — only to re-enter the world of journalism with Kalki — Devan, who was awaiting his appointment orders from Government found himself being asked to edit Ananda Vikatan, whose fort he had many a time held while Krishnamurthy was on his travels. Devan was to edit Vikatan from 1940 till his death in 1957. This was the period when he came into his own and his several serials made Ananda Vikatan a runaway leader until Kumudam came onto the scene with its ‘new journalism'.

Sadly, his serials never got published as novels — because Vasan refused him permission — until his death at the early age of 44 when he was at the peak of his creativity. The only one of his novels published in translation was Justice Jagannathan (2004). I'm in the middle of it, right now, enjoying a story entirely set as a murder trial-in-progress in the Madras High Court. With the action only rarely moving out of the courtroom in its 370 pages, it must indeed have been a Tamil fiction first, if not an international one. If this is a good example of Devan's work, his other novels could well prove as successful in English as they were in Tamil.


A new home for the bank

The Indian Bank has got a spanking new headquarters in the Royapettah area and its modernistic design certainly catches the eye though its glass-steel-and-concrete construction does make conservationists like me wonder how much energy it will devour every day. But that's another story. Today's is about the peregrinating headquarters of the Bank.

When the Indian Bank started transacting business on August 15, 1907, its home was in the Parry complex at Parry's Corner. It soon moved to the Ramakoti Building in Rattan Bazaar, later home of the South India Chamber of Commerce. In 1909, in a nice touch of irony, the Bank bought the handsome, Classically-styled Arbuthnot Building on First Line Beach that had headquartered Arbuthnot & Co whose crash had seen the Indian Bank rise from its ashes. The Bank paid Rs.1,35,000 for the property that was separated from Bentinck's Building (the Collectorate) by what is still called Arbuthnot Street. When the South India Chamber moved into Ramakoti Building, the Indian Bank in 1910 moved into Arbuthnot Building, the building seen in my picture today.

In 1970, it built a characterless tower block after pulling down the stately old structure Arbuthnot's had raised. The multi-storey building that was raised was in the style of the LIC and Indian Overseas Bank buildings on Mount Road, Madras's early efforts at highrise. It is a building that pales today in comparison with its successor building that's all agleam with glass and chrome. Obviously it's keeping pace with the changing Madras.

The plot where the 2011 headquarters building has come up once hosted the palatial house of a dubash of Best & Co., a company that once had a headquarters building not unlike Arbuthnot's at the other end of First Line Beach.


When the postman knocked…

*Last week's item on the two colleges in Saidapet has had the postman knocking several times. First off the mark was R. Arun Kumar keeping track of me from Pune. And he indicates that I should have known that M. Anathasayanam Ayyangar was the Deputy Speaker of the first Lok Sabha and not its first Speaker. That honour goes to Ganesh Vasudev Mavalankar. Mea culpa, Arun Kumar, but I'm flattered that I'm being noticed as far away as Pune. Ananthasayanam Ayyangar was the Lok Sabha's second Speaker.

*Next was Ramineni Bhaskar from Madanapalle telling me that the Department of Agriculture was started in Madras in 1863, the first in the country. The Government of India's Department was started eight years later and Departments in other provinces followed. Also a first in the country was the Saidapet Model Farm, started in March 1865. It closed down on September 1, 1885. The School of Agriculture started on the Farm in November 1876 with 29 students. The College of Agriculture was established in 1887 and the School thereafter offered only diploma courses. All this corrects a date or two in my item last week and clarifies others.

*K.V.S. Krishna then writes that Col. H.S. Olcott, who had in 1857 started a School of Agriculture Science in the U.S. and who had also been Assistant Editor of the Working Farmer, in that period, gave a lecture on ‘Practical Agriculture' in January 1886 at the “Saidapet Agricultural College”. Bhaskar's documentation makes it the School, not the College, and the date one shortly after the Farm closed down.

*N. Dharmeshwaran tells me that Five Furlongs Road (Miscellany, September 5) derives its name from the adjoining curve of rail track that measures five furlongs, according to a friend of his, an old resident of the area. I wonder whether the Railways can shed any light on this. I also wonder whether the Corporation can tell me where Mind Street is. A shop signboard with that name was spotted by a friend on Mint Street during one of the Madras Week Walks. Was it a case of mind over mint?


MetroplusJune 28, 2012

Arts, Entertainment & EventsMay 14, 2012